The social distance between church and state

by J. Pharoah Doss, For New Pittsburgh Courier

At the end of the movie “Kingdom of Heaven,” the Holy City was under siege by a conquering army. After days of fighting, the Holy City’s forces suffered heavy casualties. Balian, the knight in charge, gathered all the dead bodies and ordered them burnt. A priest protested the order and warned burned bodies couldn’t resurrect when Christ returned. Balian replied, if he didn’t burn the bodies everyone in the fortress would die of disease in three days. God will understand, but if he doesn’t, then he’s not God. The dispute between Balian and the priest was over ritual, but it was also the never-ending battle between faith and reason.

Currently, state officials are in a battle with the coronavirus pandemic. In order to stop the spread of the virus states ordered shutdowns of non-essential businesses, social distancing, and emergency stay-at-home restrictions, but some defiant churches still held worship services.

In Tampa Bay, Dr. Rodney Howard-Browne, the founding pastor of The River at Tampa Bay Church, continued with Sunday worship services even though his church had the technology to live-stream their events to their 4,000 members. Dr. Howard-Browne was eventually arrested and charged with holding an unlawful assembly and violating the public health emergency rules. In a statement, Howard-Brown explained the church is not non-essential, and in a time of crisis people are fearful and are in need of comfort and community.

A public nuisance notice was posted on the front door of the Cross Culture Christian Center in Lodi, Calif., because Pastor Jon Duncan continued services. Pastor Duncan stated their right to meet is upheld by the First Amendment. Residents who live near the church want them to stop services for everyone’s safety. Pastor Duncan hired an attorney to request the state of California to give churches an exemption from stay-at-home orders. (Some states made exemptions for church services.)

In Baton Rouge, La., Tony Spell, pastor of Life Tabernacle Church, gathered hundreds for Sunday services. Spell maintained his church offered hope to those that suffered and he’s seen his members healed from cancer, HIV, and diseases more terminal than COVID-19. Spell was eventually arrested and charged with six misdemeanors for violating the governor’s executive order. The police chief called Spell’s actions, “Reckless and irresponsible.”

But Jeff Kravitz, a civil rights attorney, stated the church’s First Amendment argument is one that hasn’t been tested in a public health crisis like the novel coronavirus pandemic, and no one knows the answers to these legal questions.

Until the courts decide these matters, we’re back to the never-ending battle between faith and reason. The pastors believe faith assemblies are essential during a crisis and are protected by the bill of rights. The state and experts in science insist that faith assemblies are health risks, non-essential, and unreasonable. But the pastors forgot one thing. The Bible also promotes wisdom and understanding. It’s possible for the pastors to be legally correct, but unwise to challenge the state under the specific circumstances just to prove they’re right.

The pastors should read Proverbs 14:12, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end, it leads to death.”

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